Ah, the good old days.
It was the early twentieth century. The industrial revolution had modernized the world economy. Workers not only had more money to spend, for the first time they had the leisure time to spend it. Baseball filled stadiums from Boston and New York to Chicago and St. Louis, propelling one George Herman “Babe” Ruth to the top of the “A” celebrity list. Jack Dempsey regularly fought in front of 100,000 rabid fight fans. And the sport that led the universe in attendance was horse racing. Four legged runners were superstars in every sense of the word. The incomparable Man O’ War had as much press as any actor and private protection that rivaled that of the President.
Horseracing was not only the sport of kings. It was the king of sports.
So what happened?
The list of mistakes made by horseracing is lengthy and well known. In a sport primarily controlled by America’s pseudo royalty, there were few visionaries and an arrogance that created denial of the steady but sure decline of racing’s dominance.
Racing is under attack from a variety of quarters. The relationship between “gambling” moralists and horse racing has always been uneasy. More puritanical interests have always frowned on the idea of betting on any type of sporting event. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) makes no secret about its desire to plunge a dagger through the heart of horseracing. When the New York Times published the results of an undercover PETA investigation involving mega-trainer Steve Asmussen and his top assistant, Scott Blasi, the anti-horseracing folks started salivating like Pavlovian dogs. It was the same old accusations. They subjected their horses to cruel and injurious treatments, administering drugs to them for nontherapeutic purposes, and having one of their jockeys use an electrical device to shock horses into running faster. PETA filed complaints with federal and state agencies in Kentucky and New York saying Asmussen “forced injured and/or suffering horses to race and train.” When you read that, was your first thought, we need to do something to fix horseracing, or did you just figure it was one more “business as usual” moment?
Remember the Pick-6 scandal at the 2002 Breeder’s Cup? More definitive “proof” that horseracing is riddled with corruption, despite the fact it was only three greedy morons who were exposing a flaw in the Amtote system. Check out this article on banking scandals to read about the 10 biggest banking scandals of 2012. That’s ten big scandals in one year. Do you hear anyone talking about shutting down all the banks?
Do I think there isn’t cheating? Of course not. There is cheating in almost any industry where lots of money is changing hands. If you believe racing is corrupt but the stock market is 100% on the up and up, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you.
Do I think that there isn’t cruelty being inflicted on animals, especially at smaller tracks, by marginal trainers? I know for a fact such cruelty occurs, often being accepted as a necessary evil to fill races. And sometimes it is not limited to marginal trainers. The enormously successful trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. was suspended 10 years in 2013 for repeated violations. If you follow the stewards activity at any track there are plenty of rulings, most of which are for petty transgressions. The problem is that while the rulings are public, for the most part the public is generally unaware of the activity. Most often the only time punishment makes the news is when something like Dutrow occurs, and it gives the appearance of an endemically corrupt business.
The New York Times had this to say. “It’s foolish, though, to think that horse racing — a dying sport on which billions are wagered every year and which features silent, compliant athletes — is clean when sports with much less at stake are not.”
Horseracing is dying, and the sport has no one to blame more than itself. The number of thoroughbred foals has declined from more than 51,000 in 1986 to around 22,000 in 2014. This leads to fewer horses available to fill races and more pressure on trainers to keep their horses race-available. The number of race starters has dropped by almost 25% since 2007. The number of registered owners has decreased by 25% in the last 10 years. It is a vicious circle . Fewer horses to fill more races leads to more drugs leads to fewer horses to fill more races.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, some in the racing industry are looking to Congress to provide them with enough credibility to sustain racing. We all understand the frustration, but do we really want the current Congress to be inserted into the game? Does the NFL or NBA turn to Congress when they have a problem? That is the last thing they would want to do.
I don’t know that I have a unique solution, so let me reinforce the one that seems best.
Horseracing needs to follow the model set by the other professional sports. A single governing authority with an appointed commissioner who has the same type of powers granted to the other major sports commissioners. Any track that doesn’t want to join gets penalized by being refused any simulcast signals. There would be uniform agreements with owners, trainers and jockeys, and jockeys would be treated more like valued employees rather than disposable plug-ins. The consortium would issue uniform drug rules and enforcement, including a three strikes rule for violations of drug policies. There would be uniform rules for fouls and disqualifications and suspensions, and mandatory training and certification for the stewards who have to make on the spot decisions. Every member track would be given assigned operating dates. A reasonable and uniform take for all tracks would be set and a uniform division of that pie would apply. Yes, that would limit the ability of tracks to “compete” with each other, and that is the point. Tracks need to be competing with casinos, state lotteries, and poker rooms, not other race tracks. The charge for simulcast fees for the low budget rebate shops would be a premium, meaning rebates could be in the more tolerable 3-5% range. We wouldn’t see the rebate whales skewing pools just to elevate their action. They’d actually need to become competent handicappers. No more “off the top” revenues for states. The state taxes the tracks as they would any business by making them pay a percentage of their profits. The state slice off the top is done under the guise of needing to pay for state oversight, but if there was a national governing body, they would take over all those functions and the state wouldn’t be in the testing, judging or veterinary business. Race tracks become just another business in the state, and policing would be just like the pro sports leagues. And the biggest thing of all. Remember that any decision has to have the best interests of the betting public in mind and not just track management, owners, and trainers.
Enough with the piecemeal approach currently in place. Someone comes up with an idea to have a uniform drug policy, and then they have to sell it to 38 separate jurisdictions. Ogden Mills Phipps, chairman of the Jockey Club, noted that the current state by state approach is going slowly. In this case slowly means, not at all. One consortium with one set of rules is the answer.
The Jockey Club has suggested “thoughtfully” reducing the number of racing days. I love those kind of qualifiers. Thoughtful, expeditious, efficient – they only mean what those in control need them to mean. Remember the famous Garrett Hardin essay, The Tragedy of the Commons? Just like those who might graze cattle on an open range will keep adding cattle until the range is exhausted, race tracks will operate in their own self interest to the exclusion of the good of the sport as a whole. But how does the National Football League avoid this problem? They limit the number of teams that can be part of the league and they do the most important things of all – they share revenues and cap personnel costs. Hardin calls this, “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.” And pretty much every team, big market or small, makes scads of money. In 2013 race track handle was almost $11 billion. With the right number of tracks and the right revenue sharing formula tracks and simulcast facilities should be able to figure out a way to prosper.
There needs to be an effective marketing branch, and more often than the Kentucky Derby and the Breeder’s Cup.There needs to be a concerted educational effort. It is really hard to be a good handicapper, and most people give up before they get started.
These are not the only ideas. Why don’t you tell me your ideas for bringing horseracing back to prominence. If we don’t fix horseracing now we may not have a sport to fix.